Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Plainfield's most burning question

Magic 8 Ball sees a lot of questions about the questions.
The most burning question for Plainfield at the moment is not Dan's arrest for allegedly having sex in a car (you can read the media stories here and here -- all I can say now is that both contain factual errors).

No, the most pressing question for Plainfield at the moment is how City Council will handle the gnarly North Avenue demolition issue.

The work has already been done. Council has refused to take up payment (which I wrote about here), making this an urgent question for the city.

The Mapp administration previously released a 17-page document of backup materials on the matter which I posted online here.

Both Bernice and Olddoc have written extensively on the matter (see here, and here).

It appears that Mayor Adrian Mapp left the entire matter in the hands of Director of Public Works and Administration Eric Watson. A close review of the documents leaves many unanswered questions about the timeline, the contractor, and the nature of the "emergency" itself.
Watson's explanation of the timeline took the Council back to questions arising in December 2015. In early January, the city's inspector issued a demolition order to the owner and gave them a week to get the job done.

Director Watson said that the owner had not lived up to previously made promises to repair the building after the December 2011 fire. (Watson did not point out that the Robinson-Briggs administration had completely dropped the ball in not following up on that promise -- or on the whereabouts of the owner, which were known at the time and have been known all along to some merchants on North Avenue.)

Then took a not-well-explained month to get the City's engineer's report on the matter. That still left us in early February. The documentary evidence of reaching out for quotations for the demolition does not show anything before March 4. That was another month. So, was this a situation of "imminent hazard" or not? If it was, why did things take so long? If it was not, why was the demolition done before the Council could weigh in?

There are a lot of questions about the timeline that need clearing up.
Director Watson told the Council that four firms were reached out to for quotations for the emergency work. There is no documentation that he reached out in writing to any or all of them. That is not a point in his favor.

The documentation that was submitted shows a nearly two week gap between quote of All Action Demolition (3/4/15) and that of Yates Real Estate (3/16/15). There is no written evidence of when the other contractors Watson mentions were contacted in writing, nor any written record of their responses.

In hindsight, all I can say about the two contractors in question is that the one awarded the job appears to have made an error in judgment resulting in extensive damage to an adjoining property. {Bernice has noted the Mi Buenaventura restaurant is relocating to 175 North Avenue, directly across from the station, and is scheduled to open May 9 -- see here.)

While Rufus, the other contractor, has cut corners in impermissible ways in the past -- dumping the debris from Blackberry's sidwalk replacement several years ago on the former Oliver Brown property on South Second Street across from Ruth Fellowship -- the firm recently completed an impeccable demolition of a former auto manufacturing plant on West Front Street near Grant Avenue. Not one brick from that much larger demolition fell on either adjacent property, one of which has two parti-walls.

One question that comes to a layperson's mind is why two-level contractual obligations were considered. What the two-level arrangement means is that a subcontractor, who is paid out of the total contract amount, performs the actual work. The prime contractor keeps a percentage of the contract as its profit. Why this arrangement? And how much is Yates Real Estate making off this deal?

This two-level arrangement also leads inevitably to speculation of bid-rigging and/or kickbacks. The very speculation questions Director Watson's probity, which thorough and transparent documentation would serve to dispel. Can the taxpayers look forward to having their questions completely answered?
Lastly, we come to the question of the "emergency" -- both the demolition and the special Council meeting.

First, as pointed out above, Director Watson needs to convincingly explain the strange timeline, as I pointed out above.

Secondly, I am somewhat puzzled by how the special Council meeting was arrived at.

Reaching back to my recollections of what we were taught at Clerk U., I seem to recall that the matter of declaring an "emergency" such as the need for this demolition devolves upon a "competent authority" and must be done in writing.

The "competent authority" in this case would have been Mayor Mapp and not a department head, or the City engineers or a City inspector. So where is there a declaration by the Mayor in writing, citing the exact nature of the "emergency" and the statutory justification for the steps being taken?

Was the mayor given the proper advice? Was the demolition "emergency" properly attested to?

Then there is the matter of the "special" meeting. The special meeting did receive the statutorily required public notice. But, if there were an "emergency" situation, doesn't the executive have explicit authority in the law to perform the action and come to the Council afterwards for ratification of the decision?

These questions also need to be clarified.
On top of all of this, then, we have the Council's refusal to act.

Which brings us to the question of hating -- smart hating and, shall we say, non-smart hating.

A Council majority hates Mapp -- despite all flowery protestations to the contrary -- and is pleased to make trouble for him in whatever way it can.

One of the ways could be to hold off paying the demolition bill until the contractor sues the City, as inevitably they would. That would cost the taxpayers money foolishly, but would throw into sharp relief the hypocrisy of the Council majority.

But what this would really do is sharpen the pressures and attention upon Director Watson and intensify the questions about his course(s) of action.

He might pull this one out of the fire, but if these questions center basically on his style of management, we would have to ask when is the next time we will be faced with a situation arising from his actions and fraught with these sorts of questions.

Mayor Mapp may forgive him for sloppiness once. But over and over?

Which leads to the question of smart hating and  not-so-smart hating.

If the Council's line of attack on Mapp were to really put Watson in jeopardy, how smart would that be?

After all, he is the one person to whom they can complain -- and do so on a daily basis, I understand. And he is their one possible source of insight into Mayor Mapp's thinking on policy issues.

Why would you want to get rid of that leverage? What would smart hating look like? Would it pass on this one, and wait for another issue in the future?

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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